Antigone, of Greek mythology, offspring from the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, has been, over millennia, the subject of books, plays, films and operas.
When Oedipus, King of Thebes, finds out his tragic truth – he murdered his enemy not knowing he was his father, and then married the man’s wife – he plucks out his eyes and wanders in the wilderness accompanied by his dutiful daughter, Antigone. After his death, her brothers, Polynices and Eteocles fight over their father’s realm and both are killed. Their uncle, Creon, takes the throne and buries Eteocles with full royal honours but decrees that Polynices, who he labels a traitor, remain unburied as food for jackals and crows. Antigone, defies her uncle, despite her sister, Ismene, urging her not to, escapes the city, and buries her brother. She is arrested and sentenced to entombment, but hangs herself instead. Creon changes his mind and sends his son, Antigone‘s fiancé Haemon, to retrieve her, but he is too late. He also kills himself; as does his mother (grandmother), Jocasta, when she hears of the demise of the last of her children.
Despite the convoluted relationships, lust, greed, ambition, and the body count Antigone‘s story, at its core, is about sibling love and devotion. And it is around this theme that Shamsie composes her modern version of Antigone, her eighth novel Home Fire (2017), setting it among a contemporary British muslim family. It’s not a re-invention of the book; the Antigone story is not “in the skeleton of the book, but in the marrow of it”.
I thought reading during the pandemic lockdown would be a pass-time that would fit the circumstances snugly, as did many friends and contemporaries, but settling into a book hasn’t been easy, for me or them, and Home Fire was the fifth I tried and the one that finally grabbed my attention.
Shamsie’s novel is set in 2014-15 and her principle characters are three siblings, Isma Pasha, the eldest, who raised her younger paternal twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz after their mother died. Their father was a notorious jihadist fighter who died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. Isma, the only child he ever saw is on her way to a brilliant academic career in the US; Aneeka, the ‘beauty’, is serious about her Muslim faith and is studying to be a lawyer; Parvaiz, radicalised by his peers, follows in his father’s footsteps and ‘escapes’ to Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of ISIS, in Syria.
Isma meets Eamonn Lone, and then he, almost accidentally, meets Isma’s sister, Aneeka. He falls hopelessly in love, and it appears Aneeka returns his love; but she has another motive: Eamonn’s father is the highly public British Home Secretary, Karamet Lone, and she needs his help to get her repentant brother safely, and unnoticed, back to England at, of course, great political risk. Aneeka arranges to meet her brother at the British Consulate in Istanbul.
The stakes are high and Shamsie allows them to gradually gain their strength and danger through a very intimate love story. This is her strength. But she, understandably, lets in the public and media outcry when the ‘plot’ is revealed (no spoilers here), in the form of newspaper stories, including salacious tabloid exposés of a sex scandal involving Aneeka ‘Knickers’ Pasha, twin sister of the Muslim fanatic Parvaiz ‘Pervy’ Pasha, and her ‘seduction’ of the Home Secretary’s son for political motives. This strengthens the plot but weakens the personal and causes the heat of the story to drop a few degrees. Quite a few, in fact.
There’s an argument here for the necessity of the public story taking centre stage but, for this reader, public tragedies are daily, and usually unemotional, events, thanks to the persistency of the media; what I missed here was the intimacy of the narrative that had, up until the public narrative took over, swept me up in its poignancy, emotion, and the oozing into it of looming tragedy. I wanted to read the climax on the page, not read about someone watching it on television. There must have been structural decisions made about this; a different structure could’ve worked better for me.
However, what I will remember are the extremely effective domestic and romantic scenes between people working out their decisions between each other in dangerous circumstances, and I am interested to read Shamsie’s previous and future work.
In September last year, Shamsie was awarded, among others, the Nelly Sachs Award for Literature from the German City of Dortmund for her contribution to fostering understanding between peoples, and I can see how Home Fire could support this. However the City rescinded the prize because of her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, and seen as anti-Israel, causing outrage from the global literary community and over 250 writers signed an open letter in the London Review of Books in September 2019 attacking the City of Dortmund for its decision. Shamsie is unrepentant and still believes that “the demonising of BDS, which is a peaceful movement asking for international law to be upheld, is an outrage“.
You can watch a BBC4 interview with Shamsie about the controversy here.
Here you can hear Shamsie talk about her experiences as a Muslim Briton and her writing of Home Fire; and it’s a particularly ‘pure’ interview since the interviewer’s questions have been edited out.
And for the more deeply interested, here is an hour-long presentation by Kamila Shamsie about Home Fire given at the Politics and Prose Bookshop on Connecticut Avenue, Chevy Chase, Washington D.C. in September 2017.
You can buy Home Fire in various formats, and other works by Kamila Shamsie, here.